What if you were able to fight mass extinction by snapping nature photos with your GPS-enabled device? Soon you will be with the Encyclopedia of Life, an uber-wiki that will one day “provide single-portal access to all knowledge of living organisms.” The ambitious project is the brainchild of Edward O. Wilson, conservationist and emeritus professor of biology at Harvard, who wrote an ode to his EOL in the New York Times last week entitled “That’s Life.” In it he detailed the raison d’etre of his award-winning taxonomic indexing, arguing “we need to properly explore Earth’s biodiversity if we are to understand, preserve and manage it.”
Launched back in May, the project’s goal is to document all the biodiversity on the planet, starting with the 1.8 million known species of animals, plants, and other forms of life within the next 10 years. Its remarkable visual interface (seen emedded above) and its charismatic and venerable progenitor (seen in his TED talk, embedded below) make for a compelling package at a time when freedom of information, collective consciousness, and citizen journalism are becoming a powerful triumvirate. To learn more about the Encyclopedia of Life we spoke with David Patterson, taxonomist, senior scientist, and the project’s principal investigator of informatics. “I want to see the capability of anyone to report the existence of an organism anywhere in the world,” Patterson said of the project’s wikiesque aspirations.
“The idea is to reach into existing repositories of information and pull from that,” Patterson explained. “I hold to the idea that we will let content flood in and we’ll edit retrospectively.”
The people behind the project are hoping to partner with reliable and stable scientific data banks as content hosts. “We want to talk to people. We want to work with people. This is going to be a high-profile project,” Patterson said. “If someone has a killer app this might be an opportunity for that.” Already the project is inundated with offers from potential collaborators. In an effort to organize the project’s software, the Encyclopedia of Life team is working with Metaweb’s Freebase, which calls itself “an open shared database of the world’s knowledge.”
The EOL, which Wilson calls “a biological moon shot,” plans to have 1,000 pages online by mid 2008. Eventually the hope to is empower the world’s lay-scientists to help collect data from all over the world and upload it into the EOL where scientists can analyze and organize the incoming information steams. The scientific applications of the technologies of lifecasting and next-gen mobile devices in the hands of an army of would-be scientists could yield a global community of fieldwork assistants.
I registered with the Encyclopedia of Life several months ago, hoping to offer up my humble skills as a environmental studies and film studies major. “Based on your stated area of interest within the EOL, your comments have been passed on to the appropriate component(s) for further consideration,” a reply email informed me. So it remains to be seen if “otters holding hands” winds up getting tagged in the Encyclopedia of Life.